William Lewis, author of the books 'What's in your Surname?' and 'What's in an English Place-name?'.

The Rise of Surnames: an Introduction

Most of us think about our surnames sometimes and will wonder about their origins, especially when we have an unusual surname.

Surnames would seem, initially, to fall into two obvious, broad categories –

  1. Unremarkable
  2. Peculiar

Examples of category 1 might be Smith, Harwood, Hodge, Johnson, Young and Thomas, while into category 2 we might place Startup, Longbottom, Lobb, Cister, Smellie and Agace.

However, all British surnames, whether commonplace or strange (at least to our modern minds), have long histories and will have originated in Mediæval times.

The surname-forming period in Britain was rather short, in historical terms. From the very earliest English traces of a descriptive ‘aftername’ – for example Edwy of Essex (died 959) and Æthelred the Unready (died 1016), until the idea of an inherited ‘surname’ for all became the norm, was less than 500 years.

The major catalyst for the adoption of a descriptive name with which to qualify the ‘given’, or ‘font’ name, was the requirement for the keeping of detailed civil and court records by the new Norman regime, following Duke William’s victory over the English at Hastings in 1066. Until that time, individuals would have received nicknames from their fellows, referring to, for example, a man’s occupation or the location of his or her dwelling or a reference to a parent, or to a personal characteristic. Our mediæval forebears were not sparing in their application to each other of accurately descriptive nicknames. We, in our highly sensitive and easily offended society, would probably not find much objection to hearing that ‘Old Agnes’ was out for a walk, or that it will be ‘Young Robert’s’ birthday tomorrow. The same would be true if we were to refer to “Tom at the corner-house’ or ‘Matilda the dressmaker’. However, there are now almost absolute taboos on the mentioning of an individual’s physical or mental characteristics. This was not the case in the Middles Ages, when nicknames, both flattering and derogatory were freely used. Our current surnames Fairchild, Goodman, Sage, Hardy and Parfitt are good examples of originally flattering nicknames, while Stout, Cruikshank, Smallbone, Callow and even Fox will have had an ancient disparaging intent.

There was another quite natural ancient spur to applying a nickname – just how did an early mediæval village community distinguish between two men called Walter, say? As we have seen above, occupation, location, relationship and a descriptive nickname are the obvious means:

Walter the priest and Walter the fish catcher,

Walter at the well and Walter at the end cottage,

Walter, Till’s son and Walter of Robert,

Walter the little man and Walter, fleet of foot.

These eight descriptive names are some of the origins of our surnames Priest, Fisher, Attwell, Endicott, Tilson, Roberts, Littleman (also Lilleyman and Lutman), Fleet (and Foot).

It is clear that our surnames have their origins in nicknames of one sort or another.

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